Should Another Big Box Come to Athens?

Does a Big Box come with a mixed bag? Does Big Box = Pandora's Box?

Within what seemed like minutes of news that a Big Box retailer, most iikely a Wal Mart, was coming to the edge of downtown Athens, people had started to organize against it.

Never mind that such a store would bring jobs to town. Never mind that it would generate millions in sales tax revenues and property taxes. Never mind that it would provide an accessible source of groceries to an in-town neighborhood without one. Never mind that an collection of historic warehouses would be reborn into a kind of instant mixed use village.

Nope. Those against Wal Mart don't want it. Period. They don't want the low-paying jobs, the accompanying traffic, the Disney-fication of downtown. More than 12,000 people have signed a petition against the giant retailer coming to downtown.

One group met at last Thursday night to strategize, under the leadership of former Congressional candidate Russell Edwards. Others have led debates on Facebook and tweeted and retweeted their messages of dismay and  outrage.

Some opponents deicded to "phone bomb" Selig Enterprises. Others know they have to convince the developers to change their minds.

Signs have started to pop up in locally owned stores in downtown.

The messages and slogans are clever and catchy. Think outside the Box. Live Better. Buy Local. We Are Athens.Org. Buy Local.

Appealing to elected officials won't produce any results. Political observers say the Mayor and Commission can't control what the developer, Selig Enterprises, puts on the 10 acres between Oconee and West Broad streets. They can't prevent owner Leonard Pitts from selling the former East Broad warehouse now housing . The land is zoned commerical and is right for just such a tenant as Wal Mart.

What do you think? Is Wal Mart a good fit for that part of Athens? If not, what would you like to see instead?  Tell us in the comments.

Milton Leathers November 20, 2011 at 09:31 PM
I have not looked them up, but surely these Atlanta Seligs are connected with Slick Selig, a die-hard Bulldog fan and friend to many old-time, low-key (read: non-Atlanta-type) Athenians (like the late Coach Bill Hartman). If other friends of the Seligs can be found -- and if -- IF -- they can be depended on to speak up for the right sort of development in downtown Athens -- a project on the Armstrong & Dobbs property could turn into something most people could support, with another IF: if the infrastructure can bear it (which is a very big unknown).
Joan Stroer White November 20, 2011 at 09:50 PM
I think we should be vigilant about what plans might do to the riverfront, but try to keep an open mind to the Wally world since jobs and fresh food are so bady needed by those downtown-area residents who are on permanent "foot patrol." Also, is this considered downtown business district proper? I think not.
Joan Stroer White November 20, 2011 at 09:53 PM
Milton - I think you are right about the Seligs. Big donors to the business school? I'd have to look that up. Either way, there are some close ties to the project, starting with Miss Chitty.
Milton Leathers November 20, 2011 at 11:10 PM
And wasn't the Georgia Museum of Art -- before some misstep or UGa "reframing" a few years ago (that I have forgotten) -- almost named the Selig Museum? There may be a new generation of Seligs running the show, but surely members of this family won't treat Athens like "just another project site." I think they have emotional ties to our city. We'll see.
Rebecca McCarthy (Editor) November 20, 2011 at 11:34 PM
I don't which Selig family this is, but Meg says Stephen Selig is the head of the development group. And that she went to school with him. Don't know where that was, either UGA or Athens High School....maybe Meg can sway them somehow. And, yes, Joan, Ms. Chitty is the person who used to head the UGA Real Estate Foundation.....I'm sure you remember her well!
gary grossman November 21, 2011 at 01:49 PM
I am not an economist but found this paper on the web written by some academic economists. The link is http://www2.econ.iastate.edu/faculty/stone/mssupercenterstudy.pdf and the conclusions are fairly clear you can skip the technical stuff and go right to the conclusions (unless you understand and enjoy reading about "pull factors" "Quite often city councils and city staff are so anxious to attract new businesses that they will offer very attractive financial incentives and perhaps change zoning status in order to attract supercenter type stores. Their primary motivation seems to be the belief that these new businesses will increase the property tax base, increase sales taxes (where local sales taxes are in play) and increase employment. These are worthy goals, but many times, the net increases are minimal as the new big box stores merely capture sales from existing businesses in the area. A reduction of sales for existing businesses usually translates into fewer employees, less sales tax and lower property tax collections from the local stores." More to follow
gary grossman November 21, 2011 at 02:09 PM
And the advice for local merchants "Rule-of-thumb 1 is: Local merchants that sell merchandise different from the supercenter or other big box stores tend to fare well and may gain sales as the additional traffic generated by the big stores spills over into their stores. Rule-of-thumb 2 is not so pleasant; it is: Local merchants that sell the same merchandise as the big stores will probably face a reduction in sales because of the difficulty in competing with major chains." Our case in Athens is slightly different because as Dr. Kinman has stated, no incentives have been provided. Nonetheless, do we really want to trade all the negative esthetics that come with a WalMart for a bunch of low paying jobs that will mostly come from local businesses? One aspect that makes Athens so enjoyable is that we still have a functional down town with character (okay we could lose a few bars and some vomit) and putting a Walmart adjacent to downtown will just contribute to turning Athens into any old strip-mall town from California to Florida. Is that really what we want? I get tired of this jobs vs. environment argument and maybe we should have a surtax on big box stores to used for start up loans to develop local small businesses. However, not having WalMart doesn't obviate the need downtown folks have for a decent grocery store. As for WalMart the great employer, has everyone forgotten the largest class action suit in US history -- female employees vs. WalMart, recently refiled?
Rebecca McCarthy (Editor) November 21, 2011 at 02:49 PM
Gary, these are all great issues. I hope there's a chance to raise these with Selig officials.
Scott King November 21, 2011 at 02:56 PM
Where are the deliveries going to come from? Which direction? They can't come through downtown and Oconee street really doesn't need them. SO....we also need to improve another area for deliveries to be made. More money for unneeded and an un-useful (for the immediate area )project. Why not just put this out North Ave somewhere or 441 where is it easier to access and get something better for downtown?
Melissa Link November 21, 2011 at 04:13 PM
The real shame of this situation lies in the fact that our local government had control of this valuable parcel for a good 10 months and could have implemented footprint and greenspace guidelines that would have prevented this type of big-box anchored development and paved the way for a riverfront district that would not only serve the local community, but draw people from far and wide to enjoy a vibrant and unique public space. Under our former mayor Heidi Davidson, the Economic Development Foundation was tasked with exploring development options in the creation of a "Blue Heron River District," when Nancy Denson took the reins a series of ball-dropping, stalling, and illegal secret meetings ensued essentially putting the kibosh on any public involvement/input on the development. Rumors circulated months ago that Wal-Mart was a likely tenant and it appears clear that certain powers-that-be on the EDF were eager to welcome outside corporate interests. The ABH covered this all along the way--everyone with an opinion on this project should do their homework to find out how we got here (I suggest you read these articles chronologically): http://search.onlineathens.com/fast-elements.php?querystring=blue%20heron%20river%20district&profile=athens&type=standard This process is the result of a clear miscarriage of leadership!
Pat McAlexander November 21, 2011 at 05:18 PM
Who is Leonard Pitts, the present owner of the site?
Ryan Griffin November 21, 2011 at 05:28 PM
No to downtown Wal-mart. No to hurting local businesses. No to an excess of Wal-marts in our town. We have 2 already. Let's build a grocery store! What about turning our efforts into petitioning the corporate Kroger for donations to our local food bank? I have heard that as an argument against a Kroger instead. You can also call Mayor Nancy Denson at: (706)613-3010. She represents you. Even if her hands are tied on this issue, her voice could have an impact on changing the plan.
Rebecca McCarthy (Editor) November 21, 2011 at 05:52 PM
Leonard Pitts owns the property in which the Jittery Joe's Roaster is housed.
Joan Stroer White November 21, 2011 at 06:17 PM
Thanks for the links Melissa! A must read, like you said. If I scanned them correctly, the plan was to finance the development by "selling $25 million in bonds to buy and improve 17 acres east of downtown Athens" funds which were to be "backed up by property taxes." Seems pretty farfetched when the housing market is not supposed to pick back up until 2015, but they should at the very least have let people into the meeting to know what was going on.
Rachel Watkins November 21, 2011 at 06:49 PM
Looks like we've bought some time. http://onlineathens.com/local-news/2011-11-21/commissioners-delay-downtown-walmart-development
tim garrett November 21, 2011 at 08:37 PM
UGA downtown bars store and restaurants all increase traffic, delivery trucks and crowding but that is essential to the heart beat of Athens .If it is a successful business in the future hindsight will show the consumer really wants and what is needed . UGA has consumed huge amounts of property but look at the city we have due to U GA 'S presence
Brian Crawford November 22, 2011 at 12:28 AM
Please sign the petition and share this link with your friends. http://peopleforabetterathens.org/
Brian Crawford November 22, 2011 at 02:28 AM
Nancy, I'm a native northeast Georgian. I lived in Athens for over 20 years and worked there another 10. I retired to Barrow County but I'm in Athens frequently for Dr.'s visits, shopping trips or evenings out with friends. Athens is a special place for most Georgians and many of us would like to preserve it's unique charm for future generations. A certain amount of development is inevitable but allowing a 200,000 sq.ft. succubus to be built on the edge of a still vibrant but always tenuous downtown is beyond stupid. If the need is for grocery, that can be accomplished with a much smaller footprint. As for jobs? Walmart jobs mean more food stamp and welfare recipients.
Brian Crawford November 22, 2011 at 03:34 AM
A majority of the signers appear to be Athenians, most of the rest are Georgians and yes a few are from out of state. There are Athens ex-pats all over the world. I would think you should be proud this issue has stirred such an emotional response. Because of the University, and the tax dollars that support it, a part of Athens belongs to all Georgians.
Brian Crawford November 22, 2011 at 04:51 AM
That is amazing I'll admit, what can I say, I'm a speed reader. I'm glad you hate Walmart, at least there's something we agree on. By the way, I didn't write the petition, I'm merely trying to help raise awareness by circulating it. Considering your stake in the community I would think you might want to do the same. Or you could just sit there and complain about people who want to help our beloved Athens maintain it's character.
Ryan Griffin November 22, 2011 at 03:39 PM
Nancy, you have established an impeccable reputation for giving back to Athens and being involved in our community. You live in Athens and you say you hate Wal-mart. Why try to play devil's advocate against the development of a downtown Wal-mart? There are many issues associated with that particular retail giant. Why not get involved and lobby the developer to work with a different grocery store? I stand corrected in regards to the 2 Wal-marts in Athens. There is only one Wal-mart in Athens, but there are 2 Wal-marts that serve Athens.
John Kissane November 22, 2011 at 04:11 PM
Correct, we've got two Wal-Marts serving Athens. But don't forget, we've also got a Sam's Club. If this proposed monstrosity is built who knows, Athens just might take over as the per capita Wal-Mart & Co. capital of the world. How cool would that be? Ugh.
Ryan Griffin November 22, 2011 at 05:07 PM
I think Nancy makes good points. Yes, downtown Athens needs a grocery store for people who don't have cars. I think most of the petitioners who live in Athens would support the development of a grocery store. People For A Better Athens - organized group in Athens - could lobby the commissioners and Selig to involve a different retailer. Kroger is already local, but from what I understand, their corporate policy prevents them from donating to local food banks. Perhaps this could be checked into; Kroger as a potential developer and change in their corporate policy for local food bank donations.
Brian Crawford November 22, 2011 at 08:19 PM
So Nancy I'm confused. Does downtown need a low cost place to shop for the under served poor in East Athens or a more upscale grocer to establish a good residential living space in downtown? While I agree both are desirable these are two very different objectives. The important thing here is that each could be accomplished with a much smaller footprint than the proposed 200,000 sq ft. behemoth. In fact a small downtown grocer, like a Piggly Wiggly Express, could easily fit in existing retail space. And I'm sorry but I resent being referred to as an out-of-towner. During my 20 years in the community there I too was an active participant; PTO president, Scout leader, Little League coach, as well as serving on the Student Assignment Appeals Committee during the school choice mess and as a member of "The Ark's" Executive Board for several years. My most active, productive years were spent there. I will always have a stake in the Athens community regardless of where I live, even if it's Timbuktu. Apparently many others feel this way and that is a tribute to what a special place Athens is. Please join the fight to keep it that way.
Brian Crawford November 22, 2011 at 08:24 PM
If any of that sounds confusing I was responding to this post by Nancy which has since been deleted: "Ryan, Many reasons: Because I feel like many people near that area need a low cost place to shop, many who are not privileged enough to own cars. Because I feel like Athens needs a grocery store (be that WalMart or Kroger, etc) in order to establish good residential living space in the downtown district. Because I feel like advocates of this petition (many out-of-towners) don't realize the reputation of Athens and anti-business, or our need for jobs regarding people with minimal education. Sorry, but I don't have the available time to lobby the developer for a different grocery store. But I do realize he needs an anchor store on this parcel of land."
Rebecca McCarthy (Editor) November 22, 2011 at 08:32 PM
Brian, we need people like you in Athens. Move back!
Brian Crawford November 22, 2011 at 08:37 PM
So for whatever reason Nancy Zachella has decided to fold up her tent and go home, taking all of her comments with her. This is unfortunate as we were having a lively discussion about whether Athens ex-pats should be signing the petition to help stop the destruction of the downtown business district. Perhaps she saw the light, I hope so, we could sure use her voice in this fight.
Milton Leathers November 22, 2011 at 09:47 PM
Rebecca McCarthy (Editor) November 23, 2011 at 01:26 AM
Are you silent with .... ?
anthony thrasher April 19, 2013 at 10:57 PM
i think that should go home. and leave ours a lone. we need growth.we need job. we need help i thought mayor wcould do something. but you know how that gos.


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